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Being a Black, Gay Conservative in a Polarized World

Ashton Theodore-Randle checks all the diversity boxes. But are they all the wrong ones for the GOP?

At first glance, Ashton Theodore-Randle seems like the very picture of “diversity”—an African-American, openly gay, Millennial politician. He’s also a proud, activist Republican.

Last November, Theodore-Randle lost a write-in campaign for a New York State Senate seat. But he’s still in his early 30s and has only begun building his political brand and platform. TAC recently interviewed Randle about where he sees the future of Republican politics headed, and what role—if any—there is to play for an openly gay conservative. (This transcript has been lightly edited for style and grammar.)

TAC: Tell us a little about your background—what attracted you to the conservative movement. And also, about your campaign last year for New York State Senate—what was that like?

ATR: I was born and raised outside D.C. in the Virginia suburbs, and with the proximity to D.C., I started interning on Capitol Hill in high school. I was not sure what direction or what I wanted to do but I volunteered for campaigns as well. In Virginia, most of my family were Republicans, but my mother had us volunteer for friends of the family in Democrat circles, such as Mayors Marion Berry and Sharon Pratt Kelly.

I grew up in a bipartisan household. My father was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat. I really became more aligned with Republican politics in high school and college. I started to really examine policies and the true beliefs of the party. Smaller government, freedom, providing the opportunity to achieve the American dream, not given to you on a silver platter—these really were my core beliefs. In addition, I was exposed to conservative groups working to promote these beliefs into policy. After the Hill, I worked with Grover Norquist at Americans for Tax Reform, and then Progress for America (a 527 working on the George W. Bush re-election). Then I went to DCI Group, an advocacy and grassroots firm working mostly with Republicans. Each opportunity continued my education, and I was also embraced by the party and thrived in the network.

When I was approached to run for the New York 27th state Senate seat, I was hesitant at first. I know this is an extremely progressive district and would really be hard to flip. However, I realized we had a chance. As a diverse candidate with a deep understanding of effective public policy making, my goal was to highlight issues and provide solutions, which is the purpose of being an elected official. My opponent was (and still is) more focused on Donald Trump and not addressing issues facing our district.

TAC: After Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, I understand that a furor arose among the Log Cabins over whether to support him. On one hand, Trump was personally the most socially liberal major Republican since Gerald Ford. On the other hand, he surrounded himself with social conservatives like Mike Pence, Sarah Palin, and, before her death, Phyllis Schlafly. So what’s happened to the Log Cabins in the wake of Trump?

ATR: The election of President Trump did have an impact on the organization. In New York, the Log Cabin state leadership at the time were not supporters of the president. After the election, they left the party and the chapter. As a result, the chapter collapsed and created a real void of any organizations that represented LGBT conservatives. In 2017, working with Gregory T. Angelo, the national Log Cabin executive director, we reestablished the chapter with me as the chair and a new steering committee. Currently, we are getting constant requests for information on how to engage. The membership now is engaged, and are overwhelming supporters of the president and the administration.

Moving forward for the next two years, I think we will see growing support for President Trump within our chapter. Many of our members are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and vote on economic issues which are in line with the administration.

TAC: There are many mainstream social conservatives like Vice President Pence who would strenuously oppose the idea of gay Republicans driving the conservative bus. Do you ever feel like you’re auditioning for a movie where the producers just don’t want you?

Absolutely, gays have a place in the conservative movement. To quote our own mission: “Log Cabin Republicans represent an important part of the American family—taxpaying, hardworking people who proudly believe in this nation’s greatness.”

I truly believe that the left-wing media keeps trying to portray people in the conservative movement as anti-LGBT for statements that were made decades ago and our push for DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act], which at the time had overwhelming support from the American people. (In the Supreme Court’s Windsor case testimony, Attorney Roberta Kaplan said that “times can blind,” which they did, and a sea change of thinking about LGBT issues eventually occurred, and not just with Republicans. President Obama was not in favor of same-sex marriage at the beginning of his presidential campaign either.)

I would say, for our chapter in New York, we have been extremely welcomed by party leadership at NYGOP. Candidates and local conservative organizations are really integrated into the GOP. In talking with others at Log Cabin, one of our southern chapters has been welcomed and active. So we see this is not just in DC and NY but across the country.  

TAC: On that note, there are also a lot of African Americans and Hispanics who believe that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, and think people of color have a moral duty to disassociate themselves with conservatism. How do you respond to that?

I get this a lot and the first thing I ask them is “tell me your definition of a racist.” Usually, they say something about the president being a white supremacist and nationalist. Then I try to get them to define nationalist. Many times they interchange “white supremacist” and “nationalist,” which are extremely different. This goes on for a while with nothing credible for them to back up the claim that President Trump is a racist. I then tell them that a racist, for me, is a person that wakes up with malice in their heart and intends to, or does, act regularly against another race because they feel an anger towards that race.

The truth is that [Trump] has been the best president for black people in America in recent history. Record low unemployment in the community, increased entrepreneurship for female-owned businesses, criminal justice reform—all major things directly impacting the black community and other communities in America.

TAC:  Does the Right need to “diversify,” and if so, how? How will Millennial conservatism be different from—and how will it be similar to—standard post-Reagan conservatism?   

ATR: I actually think we currently have more diverse people working to be active in the party and movement, but many are outside of the political structure. Nevertheless, we have Senator Tim Scott, who is wildly popular in the party and his state. We also now have a growing “Blexit” movement amongst African Americans who are exiting the Democratic plantation. Some other noticeable names are Robert Smith, an African-American gay veteran that became conservative after the election and is now speaking across the country on his experience. Candace Owens just testified in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in support of the president and the party. And there are others in this growing movement. While the pool of people is shallow, it is not empty, and it is filling up with some dynamic and energetic voices.

As an establishment Republican, I welcome them and greatly encourage diversity. However, ultimately, we want voices and policymakers that are in line with our core beliefs.

TAC: As they say on the late night TV shows, any “final thoughts”?

ATR: The most frustrating thing about the times in which we live is that so many people are stuck in echo chambers. Republicans and Democrats alike are guilty. And this has flowed way outside of the political realm. Many Republicans hated Barack Obama’s policies and fought fairly to oppose them, but [still] compromised when needed. Currently, the visceral detestation for the president by his opponents is palpable. Now, getting on a plane with a MAGA hat could be dangerous. During the Obama years, hats and logos saying “hope and change” could be worn with no problem. The difference for Republicans is that they are more willing to listen to alternative views. They may 100 percent disagree, but [I feel they] are far more willing to have a dialogue. I just feel that distinction needs to be highlighted.

[Editor’s Note: The story has been corrected to reflect Ashton-Randal’s write in candidacy.]

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”